World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Meuse-Argonne Offensive
American troops during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918. (Library of Congress)

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was one of the final campaigns of World War I (1914-1918) and was fought between September 26 and November 11, 1918. Part of the Hundred Days Offensives, the thrust in the Meuse-Argonne was the largest American operation of the conflict and involved 1.2 million men. The offensive saw attacks through the difficult terrain between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. While the First US Army made early gains, the operation soon devolved into a bloody battle of attrition. Lasting until the end of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the deadliest battle in American history with over 26,000 killed.


On August 30, 1918, the supreme commander of Allied forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, arrived at the headquarters of General John J. Pershing's First US Army. Meeting with the American commander, Foch ordered Pershing to effectively shelve a planned offensive against the Saint-Mihiel salient, as he wished to use the American troops piecemeal to support a British offensive to the north. Having relentlessly planned the Saint-Mihiel operation, which he saw as opening the way to an advance on the rail hub of Metz, Pershing resisted Foch's demands.

Outraged, Pershing refused to let his command be broken apart and argued in favor of moving forward with the assault on Saint-Mihiel. Ultimately, the two came to a compromise. Pershing would be permitted to attack Saint-Mihiel but was required to be in position for an offensive in the Argonne Valley by mid-September. This required Pershing to fight a major battle, and then shift approximately 400,000 men sixty miles all within the span of ten days.

General John J. Pershing. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stepping off on September 12, Pershing won a swift victory at Saint-Mihiel. After clearing the salient in three days of fighting, the Americans began moving north to the Argonne. Coordinated by Colonel George C. Marshall, this movement was completed in time to commence the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 26.


Unlike the flat terrain of Saint-Mihiel, the Argonne was a valley flanked by thick forest to one side and the Meuse River on the other. This terrain provided an excellent defensive position for five divisions from General Georg von der Marwitz's Fifth Army. Flush with victory, Pershing's objectives for the first day of the attack were extremely optimistic and called for his men to break through two major defensive lines dubbed Giselher and Kreimhilde by the Germans.

In addition, American forces were hampered by the fact that five of the nine divisions slated for the attack had not yet seen combat. This use of relatively inexperienced troops was necessitated by the fact that many of the more veteran divisions had been employed at Saint-Mihiel and required time to rest and refit before re-entering the line. 

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

  • Conflict: World War I
  • Dates: September 26-November 11, 1918
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • United States
  • General John J. Pershing
  • 1.2 million men by the end of the campaign
  • Germany
  • General Georg von der Marwitz
  • 450,000 by the end of the campaign
  • Casualties:
  • United States: 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded
  • Germany: 28,000 killed and 92,250 wounded

Opening Moves

Attacking at 5:30 AM on September 26 after a prolonged bombardment by 2,700 guns, the final goal of the offensive was the capture of Sedan, which would cripple the German rail network. It was later reported that more ammunition was expended during the bombardment than had been used in the entirety of the Civil War. The initial assault made solid gains and was supported by American and French tanks.

Falling back to the Giselher line, the Germans prepared to make stand. In the center, the attack bogged down as troops from V Corps struggled to take the 500-ft. height of Montfaucon. The capture of the heights had been assigned to the green 79th Division, whose attack stalled when the neighboring 4th Division failed to execute Pershing's orders for them to turn the German's flank and force them from Montfaucon. Elsewhere, the difficult terrain slowed the attackers and limited visibility.

Seeing a crisis developing on Fifth Army's front, General Max von Gallwitz directed six reserve divisions to shore up the line. Though a brief advantage had been gained, the delays at Montfaucon and elsewhere along the line allowed for the arrival of additional German troops who quickly began to form a new defensive line. With their arrival, American hopes for a quick victory in the Argonne were dashed and a grinding, attritional battle commenced.

While Montfaucon was taken the next day, the advance proved slow and American forces were plagued by leadership and logistical issues. By October 1, the offensive had come to a halt. Traveling among his forces, Pershing replaced several of his green divisions with more experienced troops, though this movement only added to the logistical and traffic difficulties. Additionally, ineffective commanders were mercilessly removed from their commands and replaced by more aggressive officers.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive
US Marines during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. National Archives and Records Administration

Grinding Forward

On October 4, Pershing ordered an assault all along the American line. This was met with ferocious resistance from the Germans, with the advance measured in yards. It was during this phase of the fighting that the 77th Division's famed "Lost Battalion" made its stand. Elsewhere, Corporal Alvin York of the 82nd Division won the Medal of Honor for capturing 132 Germans. As his men pushed north, Pershing increasingly found that his lines were subjected to German artillery from the heights on the east bank of the Meuse.

To alleviate this problem, he made a push over the river on October 8 with the goal of silencing German guns in the area. This made little headway. Two days later he turned command of the First Army over to Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett. As Liggett pressed on, Pershing formed the Second US Army on the east side of the Meuse and placed Lieutenant General Robert L. Bullard in command.

Between October 13-16, American forces began to break through the German lines with the capture of Malbrouck, Consenvoye, Côte Dame Marie, and Chatillon. With these victories in hand, American forces pierced the Kreimhilde line, achieving Pershing's goal for the first day. With this done, Liggett called a halt to reorganize. While collecting stragglers and re-supplying, Liggett ordered an attack towards Grandpré by the 78th Division. The town fell after a ten-day battle.


On November 1, following a massive bombardment, Liggett resumed a general advance all along the line. Slamming into the tired Germans, First Army made large gains, with the V Corps gaining five miles in the center. Forced into a headlong retreat, the Germans were prevented from forming new lines by the rapid American advance. On November 5, the 5th Division crossed the Meuse, frustrating German plans to use the river as a defensive line.

Three days later, the Germans contacted Foch about an armistice. Feeling that the war should continue until the German's unconditionally surrendered, Pershing pushed his two armies to attack without mercy. Driving the Germans, American forces allowed the French to take Sedan as the war came to a close on November 11.


The Meuse-Argonne Offensive cost Pershing 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of the war for the American Expeditionary Force. American losses were exacerbated by the inexperience of many of the troops and tactics used during the early phases of the operation. Germans losses numbered 28,000 killed and 92,250 wounded. Coupled with British and French offensives elsewhere on the Western Front, the assault through the Argonne was critical in breaking German resistance and bringing World War I to an end.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).